George Estreich, poet and author of “The Shape of the Eye”
In July of 2008, the year I lived in Melbourne with my family, Starbucks responded to the economic crisis by shuttering hundreds of stores worldwide. In the letters section of The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, the event registered as a triumph over an uncouth invader:
Good riddance, Starbucks, take your awful coffee and go back to the rat hole you came from.
Matt Smith, Beaumaris.
And (huffily), under the headline “A win for good taste”:
Finally, the Australian public has resisted the temptation to mimic and Americanise our lives, by rejecting the Starbucks coffee model. When you consider that the average good (Italian) coffee outlet in Melbourne will charge roughly $3 for a great coffee that will be brought to your table in a china cup, why on earth would people want to pay roughly double for an average coffee, often with a fancy name, in a cardboard cup, that you have to line up for, with no service?
We are to be congratulated.
Steven Rose, Caulfield
Seven months earlier, as we prepared to leave Oregon for my wife’s sabbatical year, I’d sworn never to visit an Australian Starbucks. Why travel to a new shore, then turn your back on the continent? Why open new vistas, then shut your eyes? At the same time, I hadn’t sworn off coffee, which I need in order to avoid headaches, write clearly, and stabilize my moods. But after we arrived in Melbourne, I could not find coffee anywhere. It was only one of a long list of absences, including familiar faces, Mexican food, and rain. (To move from the Pacific Northwest in winter to a Victorian summer, from a dank, rainy perma-twilight to a surfeit of sun, is as dramatic a shift as you can make in the First World.)
I ventured into non-corporate coffee shops on Chapel Street and Swanston Street and Glenferrie Road, ready with my colorful Australian money, and asked for a cup of coffee.
What kind of coffee?
(Delicately.) Espresso, macchiato, cappuccino…?
Drip coffee, at least outside Starbucks, does not exist in Melbourne. The closest thing to it is what Starbucks calls “Americano,” and what Australians call a “long black.” Sometimes you can get coffee made with a French press. Once, in a Gloria Jean’s, I ordered the French Press Coffee of the Day. From the hasty conference behind the counter, I gathered that the Coffee of the Day flavor would have to be identified, and the French press would have to be located and dusted off. Eventually something smelling of burned hazelnuts appeared in a paper cup.
The brief, confused conversations I had with baristas, in early January, seemed part of a seamless web of disorientation and confusion. It included the black light that evidently flashed on above my head whenever I opened my mouth, or the awkward tack-left-tack-right stutter-step that happened every ten steps on crowded city sidewalks, where we had to remember to walk on the left side. It is, I suppose, that disorientation that we went there to find, in order to recover from it.
The absence of coffee felt like the absence of a personal history. I had grown up with the smell of burned coffee in a two-stage aluminum pot (you poured boiling water in the top, and it sank through a perforated basket full of Maxwell House grounds, producing a dark ichor, whose liquid remainder thickened and burned above a low flame all Saturday morning); I had drunk gallons of watery diner refills as a teenager, while out late avoiding the house; for years after I was married, I made double-strength Folger’s in the Braun coffeemaker given as a wedding gift; and then I learned, after moving to the Pacific Northwest, that coffee was not only too precious for free refills, but that it had its own vocabulary of aroma and taste and provenance, like wine for the productive. As a newcomer to Cascadia, I came to have preferences. When at home, I drank fair-trade organic French Roast Sumatra delivered to the local food co-op by bicycle, though none of these qualities were as important to me as its raw strength. I like coffee, I like the taste of it, and I prefer it to be fairly traded, but the truth is that it’s always been about the milligrams. Which is how I came to spend hundreds of dollars a year at Starbucks for something I once thought too bitter to consume.
Writers need rituals, a way to make the world recede. Over the years in the Northwest, writing in Starbucks had become my ritual, the habit that enclosed the habit. I’d park myself by an outlet, plug in the laptop, and write for most of the morning. It was comfortable—that carefully crafted “third space,” neither home nor work, was a good fit for a writer without a job—and over the years, as the price of a grande house ticked upward, the comfort began to feel necessary. That third space is designed to be ignored, to be pleasant, unobtrusive, a dependable nowhere. Glancing around, I saw that most other customers were living in third spaces of their own, texting, surfing the net, looking at Windows or out through windows. I was no different; an unfinished manuscript is a third space too. You spend hours there, or years, but you don’t live there, and you hope to leave as soon as you can.
In Melbourne, ignoring our surroundings was not an option. The least detail demanded attention. Which tram do we take? Where can I find coffee? Why does that big cemetery have a banner announcing a website? What does “Bob’s your uncle” mean? In response, we kept our eyes and ears open, asked questions, and reconstituted a version of home. In our beige rented apartment, we slept on mattresses on the floor and covered cardboard boxes with fabric to make nightstands. Our desk was a card table in a corner of the living/dining area. We didn’t own a car; we got around on trams and commuter trains, which not only made us feel virtuous, but also made the rare car ride seem futuristic in its velocity. I joked about selling carbon credits to friends with SUVs, but our plane flights to, from, and within the continent ensured that our carbon footprint was probably less dainty than thunderous. From the atmosphere’s perspective, we were stomping around in clown shoes.
We had translated our life into Australian, and like Australian English, it was both comprehensible and different in every syllable. We had debit cards (called “EFTPOS”), cell phones (“mobiles”), my daughters attended school (in uniforms), my wife worked in a lab (but did not teach), and I cooked, hung out with the kids after school, and revised my manuscript (but not in Starbucks).
Whenever I told anyone we were moving to Australia, I was quick to note that we were lucky. We were lucky. I was determined to make the best of that luck, so I began to drink coffee that was good (Italian). I developed a taste for cappuccino.
The presence of cappuccino, macchiato, espresso et al in Melbourne is not the result of a corporate marketing plan. Nor is it a recent trend. Coffee that is good (Italian) exists in Melbourne because Melbourne has Italians, who migrated to Australia and brought their coffee with them. Melbourne is often described as a “cosmopolitan” or “European” city, and in coffee is the bitter essence of that Europeanness. This, perhaps, is the source of the Melbournian reaction to Starbucks: with its ridiculous names, its grandes and ventis and Frappuccinos, the stores were one more visible reminder of Americans taking over and ruining everything authentic and good.
Leaving friends and family for a year is hard; adjusting to a new culture is hard; uncertainty, in general, is hard. Learning to drink cappuccino is easy. It is possibly the easiest expatriate adjustment on record. In Mr. Tulk (the cafe at the State Library, named for its first librarian); in Brown’s, the bakery/cafe I’d go to with my daughters every Thursday after school; at a shivery outdoor picnic table at the Collingwood Children’s Farm; in a dozen other places I walked into because I’d read about them, or just because I was curious, I learned, somehow, to cope. The cappuccino was good.
It was always gone too soon. The bladder-straining Grande Paper Vat was now a memory, and the quality of Australian coffee (excellent) and the quantity (less than ginormous) were instructive. I was reading a lot of Michael Pollan in those days, and the cappuccino seemed part of a sensibly Australian approach to food. The portions were reasonable, not huge. Even at McDonald’s—I hadn’t sworn off McDonald’s, a practical parent never surrenders a useful bribe–a large soda was maybe sixteen ounces, not thirty-two. Also, the refills weren’t free. The middle of Australia is spinifex-filled desert, not corn, so you also paid for packets of ketchup, and for soda refills. From across the equator, I was coming to see America as the Land of Free-Flowing Corn Syrup, where you could have as much as you wanted of whatever was profoundly bad for you.
Now and then, walking up Swanston Street to the State Library, I’d pass the open door of Starbucks. It smelled exactly like home. But then, so did the Lush, which smelled exactly like its counterpart in Portland; and, for that matter, so did the McDonald’s (“Macca’s”), or the Burger King (“Hungry Jack’s”). All seemed to have drilled a pipeline of memory from Australia to America, and whenever the fragrance of Chicken McNuggets or Pike Place Roast wafted out on refrigerated air, I experienced a swell of false nostalgia. Of course, it was not place I remembered, but displacement, a familiar nowhere, precise, predictable, franchised. I walked on.
The cappuccino did come in a china cup. You sat and drank it, and when it was gone, you left. In an American Starbucks, customers tend to either rush off with to-go cups or loiter for hours over laptops. In Australia, these extremes were harder to find. To-go cups were unusual, and we never saw anyone with coffee on a tram. In these practices were an echo of teatime, which in Theresa’s lab was mandatory. No conversation about work allowed. No drinking tea at your desk. You stop what you’re doing and have tea. It was one of the many reminders that though Australia and the United States had their origins in a single empire, they were traveling on very different vectors.
The cappuccino was very, very good. It was good (Italian); it was good (Australian); it was good (Melbournian). But it was, emphatically, not American.
Reading the letters to The Age—“good riddance, Starbucks”–I experienced an odd flicker of patriotism. Since arriving from the Superpower Rat Hole I was born to, I had been bumping up against my foreignness. I was the one with the accent. I was, for better or worse, the representative of a clueless superpower. And while I found, as many have, that Australians are extraordinarily generous and kind and open, there was also a sort of unexpected ironic reserve, a skepticism, not accurately represented in the commercials for Outback Steakhouse. No one ever told us to go back to the rat hole we came from, but Theresa, at work, was asked in all seriousness if she carried a handgun back home, and I was asked more than once (in a tone of hopeful absolution) if I might perhaps be from Canada.
Because we made friends over the year, because we attended school plays and soccer games and visited places like Merimbula, where American tourists rarely go, we came to see that this attitude was far from rigid. Australians always seemed happy to be proved wrong about Americans. We were not necessarily assumed to be gun-toting, Palin-supporting, Frappuccino-swilling rats, but there was a tone of relief when we turned out not to be. This relief became general in Australia at about 2:30 p.m. on November 4th, when it became clear that America would have a President who was black and Democratic–and a Vice-President who was not Alaskan–and from that day on until we left in late December, the mood was palpably different. There was hope for us, after all. On the day Obama was elected, Laura’s bus driver was in tears, she was so happy, and Theresa’s lab stopped work for the afternoon. Instead of teatime, they had champagne.
Five years later, I feel less inspired than disappointed. The hopes attending Obama’s arrival don’t change the facts of climate. We live in the Anthropocene now, and one peculiar fact of our manmade era is that it is all too comprehensible. Ice melts, the temperature goes up, the species go extinct, the birds’ ranges alter, and the CO2 continues to accumulate. We know what we need to know, and we know that we know it. To have this kind of awareness is to feel less certain about ordinary life. Its solidity shimmers, as if seen through the fumes rising from a gas can. We are compromised Zen masters, enlightened but culpable: the world is impermanent, and it’s all our fault.
To live in Victoria in 2008 was to feel large-scale climate change, in a way western Oregon does not usually allow. Though the blazing heat wave that welcomed us to Melbourne was weather, the eleven-year drought in Victoria was something else again. By the time we arrived, that drought was simply the new normal. The climate had changed. The signs were everywhere, in water restrictions, in the black pipes sticking up from the bases of trees, in patchy cricket grounds, in news reports about irrigation conflicts and the Murray River turning to acid. On February 7, 2009, about a month after we got back home, days of record temperatures and wind prepared the way for the Black Saturday bushfires. Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, was completely incinerated. Thirty-four people died in Marysville alone, one hundred and seventy-three altogether. The smoke cloud was visible from space.
We’d driven through Marysville on our way to Healesville Animal Sanctuary, where my younger daughter, who’d once been terrified by a wallaby hopping through a campsite in New South Wales, successfully petted a kangaroo. I remembered Marysville as one of dozens of tidy, friendly Australian towns, with an Australia Post, an op shop (thrift store: “op” is short for “opportunity”), a few restaurants, a few stores for tourists. Online, you can find photos before and after the fire. The photos before the event correspond to memory, the photos after do not. The aerial photos show an apocalyptic plat map. At ground level, it seems as if color itself has been burned away. Our connection to the tragedy is so slight, it is almost obscene to mention it, except that disasters of that scale are becoming more likely as the world warms, and our chances of escaping them, or avoiding them by travel, are decreasing.
We live in the shadow of unimaginable numbers, the sum of our routines. We drive to Starbucks, because it is raining; we fly to Australia, because we want a change; we take the tram to the State Library and sit in the Australiana Room, the light filtering from a high window, because we want to write about a life. These acts consume energy, and while individually trivial, they are significant in the aggregate. Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and author of The Weather Makers, explains the “telekinetic” nature of the atmosphere: wherever the carbon comes from, it quickly distributes throughout the system. Whether it’s the black Land Rover wedging itself into a Chadstone Shopping Centre parking space, the hunter green Outback pulling up to a Trader Joe’s, or the Prius in the Starbucks drive-through, each of us contributes our parts per million. Our routines produce the crisis, but the crisis also threatens our routines.
When we came back to America, I decided to buy a new coffeemaker. Even after two weeks back in the States, it seemed as if the year abroad was already dissolving. We blinked and returned to the same house, in the same Northwest winter, except our children’s friends were suddenly taller. We stepped outside the bubble for a year, and the bubble welcomed us back. It was eerie: I felt too settled in, as if the trip had not happened. As if some part of me, altered by the trip abroad, refused to root and flourish. Perhaps that dislocation was my way of honoring the fact of the year away.
So I drove to the Fred Meyer store and bought a new Black and Decker coffeemaker, which, when I plugged it in and filled the filter basket with fresh-ground bicycle-delivered organic beans, produced four cups of watery swill. I drove back and returned it, then drove to the ARC on 10th and Beca and found a used Mr. Coffee brand coffeemaker/cappuccino maker for eight dollars. It was so old, its instruction manual did not even list a website. The manual was precisely written, by someone who clearly cared about espresso (the proper grind was “like salt, or sand”); but strikingly, it was written, in English, and not composed of generic, globalization-friendly icons. (These are handy, if you want to sell an appliance in eighty different countries; but they are limited. You can show someone a generic hand filling a carafe with water; you can demonstrate the concept of “plugging in”; you can show not doing something, or rudimentary concepts like “hot” or “shocky” or “ouch”; but you cannot, without words, demonstrate the proper fineness of an espresso grind.)
It took awhile to get the cappuccino maker part to work, but it works. The coffeemaker part works too, but most mornings I make cappuccino; it reminds me of another home. As for Starbucks, I don’t go there as much as I used to. The book I was writing is done, and it’s quieter at my desk.